Column: What it’s actually like being Latina in the classroom


Photo credit: Leslie Castaneda

An artistic illustration by junior student-artist, Leslie Castaneda, of myself. This piece is a reflection of my specific experience as a student of color in the classroom.

“Are Latinas responsible for teaching their peers about their race?” This is a question that has popped up in my life multiple times recently. Whether it comes up at an Hermanas Unidas affinity meeting, at a debrief of “The Hate U Give” at Archer’s Diversity Conference or when setting classroom norms for our race unit in history class, it is a question I have honestly been scared to answer.

Being Latina has become a huge part of my identity. Over the course of my three years in high school, I’ve fully embraced my latinidad and have been outspoken about my point of view on racial issues. I write this column specifically about my experience as a Latina and I’m a leader of the Hermanas Unidas club, in which we dedicate our time into teaching our community about our culture. I’ve written what feels like countless essays on race and if you have ever been in a history or English class with me, you know that I always bring it up.

But is being Latina all that I am? Should it define me as much as it does right now?

It’s an answer I have been looking for and going back and forth with for a while. When I wrote my first-ever column for the Oracle, I concluded the piece by saying how I was ready to “take on” uncomfortable conversations and how I wanted to be “outspoken” and “have pride” in my culture. The whole piece was about me finding my ethnic identity and the culture shock I experienced when I first came to Archer. I wrote about the process of taking on the role of a Latina student at Archer almost as if I was coming to terms with something.

As a junior now, I want to challenge the narrative I immersed myself in. I think it is a lot more complex than my sophomore self thought it was. Reading that column again, there is still a lot I profoundly agree with, but I feel that it was what I thought I “should” do or what I was “supposed” to do. I’ve built a lot of the person I am today on this singular social identifier, so I started to feel like as a student of color, this is what I should be doing or what I am “good” at doing. 

There must be a balance between pressure to represent your culture and being passionate about it. It’s a gray area I have been constantly thinking about.

At the end of the day, Latina is not absolutely everything I am. Our classrooms should not depend on students of color to provide the Person of Color [POC] perspective. When a student’s racial group is brought up in class, the whole class shouldn’t turn to that student to speak. How do we expect one person to speak for a whole group of people, a group that is sometimes made up of millions? “I can only speak from the ‘I’ perspective,” I heard a Latina friend say at the lunch table once. We don’t go to school to do the teaching or correcting.

But I’ve always felt like if I don’t do it, who will? I don’t want the POC perspective to be lost. I want people to know about it, and I want to spread it, but I also don’t want to feel obligated to do a job I can’t do by myself. 

But do we rely on white teachers to teach about race and privilege? In my experience, there are white teachers who are trained and qualified to teach these lessons, but some still look to students of color in the room to answer the “awkward” race questions.

I know fellow students of color who express frustration about being taught by white teachers, but if recruiting teachers of color is so difficult, do we want students of color to have to fill in these gaps?

I still don’t know where I stand because it is such a complicated issue, but I think it is important to see that both sides are valid. There will always be tension when talking about race in the classroom, but it’s important for white teachers to be mindful of their students of color, and it’s also important for students of color to feel whatever it is they feel.

I personally think I do take it upon myself to be very vocal about my point of view as a POC, but I acknowledge not everyone feels the same way, and that is fine. All students of color have different comfort levels, different experiences and different upbringings that contribute to this decision. We are not all the same; therefore, we should not all be held to a specific standard or expectation.

I want to take on the role of a student in the classroom and be allowed to define that as I choose, rather than being expected to be the teacher.

Correction statement: This column was updated on Feb. 15 at 12:15 p.m. in order to clarify the author’s meaning in the final paragraphs.